Pushkin As a Poet of Blackness

Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy


     The title of this paper, “Pushkin As a Poet of Blackness,” shades into an­other title, “Pushkin As a Black Poet.” I am taking as my starting point a question one of my colleagues, Irina Reyfman, posed when my co-editors and I were first beginning the project that culminated in the book Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness. She asked—quite simply, but very much to the point—whether black and its Russian coun­terpart chernyi could be viewed as meaningful equivalents with regard to comparative Russian and American racial semiotics generally and, more specifically, with regard to Pushkin. Obviously this is an aspect of the much larger issue of whether race mattered to Pushkin and his contempo­raries and to those who created and participated in the Pushkin cult after him. The contributors to our book project unanimously concurred that, at different times and in different ways, race does indeed matter in studying Pushkin. Here I am interested precisely in the intersection of linguistic, cultural, and political difference. To what extent does the word chernyi in Pushkin’s works resonate with the poet’s African ancestry?

     Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others, has observed that race is funda­mentally a rhetorical trope, that is, blackness is a metaphor with fluctuat­ing but powerful political implications, as we are well aware in the context of United States history. The unresolved debate about the acceptability of the word black as a marker of group (self) identification in this country pays eloquent testimony to the volatility of the relationship between signi­fier and signified in the realm of racialized politics. According to the authoritative Slovar´ iazyka Pushkina, the word chernyi appears in one context or another 201 times in Pushkin’s works. This statistic raises two interrelated questions. First, does Pushkin use the word chernyi as a marker of his African heritage? Second, if so, do metaphorical uses of blackness in Pushkin’s works “bleed” into one another? That is, do they in­fect the discourse of blackness in Pushkin’s oeuvre in a manner resonant with arguments by American commentators who have maintained that the word black as a metaphorical designation of race is inevitably con­taminated by other figurative associations with blackness—particularly by such negative and persistently transhistorical and cross-cultural tropes as black as the color of evil and death.

     The first question I posed has a simple answer, I believe, for Pushkin used the word chernyi on a significant number of occasions in contexts when his African ancestry was clearly at issue. In the interest of time, I will cite merely two of them here.[1] My first example is especially telling, because it appears in Pushkin’s response to what was certainly the most notorious public, racially-charged journalistic attack on the poet during his lifetime: the yellow journalist Faddei Bulgarin’s claim, transparently referring to Pushkin, that the poet’s great-grandfather had been “bought for a bottle of rum.” Pushkin’s answer to Bulgarin—at the urging of friends, Pushkin refrained from dignifying Bulgarin’s foray with a public response, but confined himself to circulating it unofficially—appears in the “Post scriptum” to his poem “My Genealogy” (“Moia rodoslovnaia”). I will cite two stanzas here. The first one reads:

Решил Фиглярин сидя дома
Что черный дед мой Ганнибал
Был куплен за бутылку рома
И в руки шкиперу попал.[2] (PSS 3[1]: 263)

Figliarin decided, sitting at home
That my black granddad Gannibal
Had been purchased for a bottle of rum
And fell into the hands of a skipper.[3]

The “skipper,” as Pushkin points out, was none other than Peter the Great. More important, the issue here is clearly not Gannibal’s blackness, which is only tangentially referred to in the original attack,[4] but the slur on Gannibal’s social status. Thus Pushkin, in the third stanza, affirms Gannibal’s high standing with the tsar:

Сей Шкипер деду был доступен
И сходно купленный арап
Возрос усерден неподкупен
Царю наперсник а не раб. (PSS 3[1]: 263)

This Skipper and granddad remained pals,
And in time the purchased blackamoor
Grew up zealous and incorruptible,
The tsar’s confidant, not his slave.

It is clear here that Pushkin is affirming Gannibal’s “literal” blackness (the darkness of his skin), while refuting negative inferences about his an­cestor’s purportedly servile situation.

     My second example comes from a draft fragment (unpublished in Pushkin’s lifetime) written in folk style in 1825. There Pushkin writes:

Как женится задумал царский арап,
Меж боярынь арап похаживает,
На боярышен арап поглядывает,
Что выбрал арап себе сударушку,
Черный ворон белую лебедушку.
А как он арап чернешенек,
А она-то душа белешенька. (PSS 2[1]: 338)

When the tsar’s blackamoor decided to marry,
The blackamoor walked among the ladies,
At the ladies the blackamoor gazed,
The blackamoor chose himself a wife,
The black crow chose a white swan.
And he was a little black blackamoor,
But she was a little white soul.

The equivalence here between the “blackamoor” (arap) and the “black crow” (chernyi voron) again underscores Pushkin’s indisputable associa­tion of blackness with dark skin pigmentation. Yet here we also see the unstable relationship between the literal and the metaphorical in the last two, implicitly parallel lines, in which the reference to the bride as a “little white soul” suggests an ethical contrast with the “little black blackamoor.”

     Let me suggest as an epigraph to the next and central section of my argument another Pushkin text in which darkness is invoked in a manner that blurs the line between the literal and the metaphorical. The passage comes from Pushkin’s unfinished Egyptian Nights (Egipetskie nochi). The lines constitute the conclusion of the poem the Italian improviser creates on the paradoxical theme dictated by Charsky: “the poet chooses his own subject for his songs; the crowd has no right to direct his inspiration” (“поэт сам избирает предметы для своих песен; толпа не имеет права управлять его вдохновением”) (PSS 8[1]: 268). The lines of the impro­viser, who is through his clothing and features repeatedly associated with the color black, read:

Зачем арапа своего
Младая любит Дездемона,
Как месяц любит мглу?
Затем, что ветру и орлу
И сердцу девы нет закона.
Таков поэт: Как Аквилон
Что хочет, то и носит он—
Орлу подобно, он летает
И, не спросясь ни у кого,
Как Дездемона избирает
Кумир для сердца своего. (PSS 8[1]: 269)

Why does the young Desdemona
Love her blackamoor so,
As the moon loves the darkness?
Because there is no law
Over the wind, the eagle, or a girl's heart.
Thus too the poet: Like Aquilon
He does whatever he pleases –
Like the eagle, he flies
And, not asking anyone,
Just as Desdemona chooses
An idol for his heart.

The improviser thus compares Desdemona’s freedom to choose her oppo­site as a love object (tantamount to the moon’s affinity for the dark of night) to the poet’s freedom to create. Yet the idea of free choice is under­cut by the very conditions of poetic creation here, since the topic of the improvisation has been dictated by Charsky. There is, I would suggest, an inherent and analogous tension between freedom and convention, between the metaphorical and the literal—with the blackness of the unnamed Othello in the balance.

     On this note, let me turn briefly to two texts that stand at the opposite poles of the literal and the metaphorical with regard to the invocation of blackness in Pushkin’s works: the unfinished novel based on the life of Pushkin’s great-grandfather Gannibal, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, and the “Little Tragedy” Mozart and Salieri. While both works in a man­ner of speaking feature “black men,” the figures at issue would seem to be incommensurate. I will argue, however, that a juxtaposition of the African Ibragim from The Blackamoor of Peter the Great with the “man in black” (chernyi chelovek) from Mozart and Salieri throws into high relief not only the instability I have already postulated between the literal and the fig­urative in Pushkin’s use of the adjective black, but the semiotic apprehen­sion from which that instability originates in Pushkin’s works.

     I have already written at some length in Under the Sky of My Africa on the subject of why it may have been precisely Pushkin’s anxiety about the implications of “outing” his blackness publicly that kept him from completing his first major attempt at a novel.[5] Here I would like to ap­proach the problem of the “blackness” in the text from a somewhat differ­ent point of view, taking as my point of departure Arthur L. Little, Jr.’s argument in the article “‘An Essence That’s Not Seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello.” I cannot do justice to the complexities of Little’s ele­gant and ingenious line of reasoning here, but the basic framework of his contention should suffice for my purposes. He begins by demonstrating how Shakespeare’s play initiates the problem of competing significations of blackness:

The Duke offers the official reading of Othello’s body when he pro­claims to Desdemona’s father, “If virtue no delighted beauty lack, / Your son-in-law is far more fair than black” (1.3.284–85). In other words, Othello’s literal blackness should not be read as ocular proof of Othello’s metaphorical blackness.[6]

Little then proceeds to trace how, in the course of the play, Othello is led virtually inexorably to act out in the final, fatal assault on Desdemona in their marriage bed the “crucial primal scene of racism” (324): “When Othello kills Desdemona, his literal blackness becomes metaphorical, or, better still, he becomes the literal embodiment of a metaphorical black­ness” (322). I would suggest that this same paradigm, the audience expec­tation that the literal blackness of the body must ultimately find its cor­respondence in a threatening, alien metaphorical blackness, haunts the text of Pushkin’s The Blackamoor of Peter the Great as well.

     Catherine O’Neil, among others, has demonstrated the importance of Othello as a pre-text of Pushkin’s life and works.[7] If we read The Blacka­moor of Peter the Great specifically in light of Little’s illumination of Othello, we find a similar struggle against the entailment of metaphorical blackness by physical blackness—which in Pushkin’s work appears, as in the case of the metaphor of Desdemona’s choice of the blackamoor cited above, as an assertion of individual (creative) freedom against the con­straints of nature or convention or fate. The question in this case is: Is the power of metaphorical blackness so strong that it cannot be defeated by literal refutation? Did Pushkin fail to complete The Blackamoor of Peter the Great in part because his plot threatened to fall prey to metaphor? Let us remember at this point that Pushkin in effect begins his narrative pre­cisely with the “monstrous” birth that Othello’s murder of Desdemona forestalls. Ibragim’s French mistress, the Countess Leonore, gives birth to a black infant, evidence of her infidelity (a child that must be spirited away and replaced by a white child to cover up the illicit affair). It is, moreover, Ibragim himself who gives voice to the metaphorical potential of his black skin in his farewell letter to the countess: “Зачем силиться со­единить судьбу столь нежного, столь прекрасного создания с бедствен­ной судьбою негра, жалкого творения, едва удостоенного названия человека?” (Why strive to unite the fate of such a tender, such a beautiful creature with the calamitous fate of a negro, a pathetic creation, barely worthy of the name of man?) (PSS 8: 9). Despite repeated proofs of his nobility, underscored by the imprimatur of Tsar Peter himself, Ibragim re­iterates his self-denigration in response to Peter’s offer to serve as match­maker, to marry Ibragim to the daughter of a boyar family and thereby assure his place in Russian society: “— Государь, я счастлив покрови­тельством и милостями вашего величества. Дай мне бог не пережить своего царя и благодетеля, более ничего не желаю; но если б и имел в виду жениться, то согласятся ли молодая девушка и ее родственники? моя наружность…” (Sire, I am lucky in the patronage and good graces of your excellency. May God grant that I not outlive my tsar and benefactor, I wish nothing else; but if I did indeed wish to marry, would a young girl and her relatives consent? My appearance…) (PSS 8: 27). In fact, Ibra­gim’s putative bride does respond with horror at the prospect of being married off to a “blackamoor.” The text breaks off at the appearance of a Cassio analogue—Valerian the son of the strelets. Like Shakespeare’s Cassio, a conventional romantic pairing for the heroine, an implicit threat to the free choice of Desdemona against type, Valerian looms as Ibragim’s rival. Does Pushkin head off his own plot in order to save his protagonist from becoming, like Othello, a realized metaphor of blackness? Of course, we can never know for sure, but I would suggest that we begin to see emerging in this brief examination of Pushkin’s use of chernyi a pattern in which blackness marks the clash between free will and creativity, on the one hand, and coercion and convention, on the other, between choice and constraint, between fair and foul.

     So, as my last point, let me turn to what may well be Pushkin’s most enigmatic “black man”—the “chernyi chelovek” from Mozart and Salieri, the mysterious, nameless figure who commissions a requiem from Mozart, the composition of which will coincide with Mozart’s own death from poi­soning by his rival Salieri. Upon first mention in the work, this figure is described as “dressed in black” (chelovek odetyi v chernom). Yet the phrase by which he is repeatedly identified, “chernyi chelovek,” is inherently am­biguous in a fashion that erases the boundary between literal and meta­phorical—for it can indeed mean either a person clothed in black garments or a “black person,” that is a person with dark coloring. The most obvious symbolic resonance here is the long-established association between the color black (the color of mourning) and death. However, given the trajec­tory of my argument so far—and the tangential supporting evidence of the “Negro” who drives the “cart filled with dead bodies” in another of Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, “Feast in Time of Plague” (“Pir vo vremia chumy”)—I ask you to consider the possibility that Pushkin’s “black man,” in his guise as death, the ultimate check on volition, the final limit of the human body, harks back to the ambivalent charge of Pushkin’s black blood. The genius Mozart describes the “black man” as his “shadow,” as the third person in the room during his conversation with Salieri:

Мне день и ночь покоя не дает
Мой черный человек. За мною всюду
Как тень он гонится. Вот и теперь
Мне кажется он с нами сам-третей
Сидит. (PSS 7: 131)

Day and night my black man
Gives me no peace. Everywhere
Like a shadow he pursue me. Even now
It seems to me he sits with us
A third man.

Mozart and Salieri is, from beginning to end, a meditation on law and grace, justice and evil. The villain of the piece is unquestionably Salieri the poisoner in the name of order and law. Yet the “black man,” who shad­ows Pushkin’s alter ego Mozart, is an accomplice to the act of villainy if only in his role as harbinger, as a sign of the inevitable outcome of the artist’s creativity—his acceptance of the commission to compose the requiem which will become his own leads inexorably, precisely through the brilliance of the creation, to the artist’s death. The “black man” then becomes the point where nature and metaphor merge, the source and the boundary of genius.

     Living in a post-Freudian age, we are doomed to the knowledge of what Pushkin could only intuit—that language is not innocent, that its very ambiguity, its polysemy, and inevitable dissemination into tropes re­veal precisely that which it is simultaneously designed to conceal. The examples I have adduced here demonstrate the inevitable linguistic inter-implication of “Pushkin as a black poet” (that is, as a poet who was con­scious of issuing from a black forebear) and “Pushkin as a poet of black­ness” (that is, as a writer who deploys images of blackness in his works). Situated phonically between chernila (the ink with which he wrote) and the despised “crowd” (chern´) that devalued his creativity, chernyi could not help but evoke for Pushkin the fundamental terms and risks of his poetic calling—and especially of his special place as both Russia’s great national and Russia’s great black poet.


Barnard College, Columbia University


Download: Nepomnyashchy, Catharine. "Pushkin as a Poet of Blackness." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 97-104.

[1] For a more detailed list, see J. Thomas Shaw, “Pushkin on His African Heritage: Publications during His Lifetime”; and David Bethea, “How Black Was Pushkin?: Otherness and Self-creation,” both in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Push­kin and Blackness, ed. Nicole Svobodny, Ludmilla A. Trigos, and Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2006), 79–98 and 122–49.

[2] All citations of Pushkin are from A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 17 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1937–59). Henceforth this will be abbreviated PSS; volume and page numbers will be provided.

[3] I would like to thank Angela Brintlinger for her help in producing deft and accu­rate translations of the Pushkin citations in this article.

[4] For more on this, see my article “The Telltale Black Baby, or Why Pushkin Be­gan The Blackamoor of Peter the Great but Didn’t Finish It,” in Under the Sky of My Africa, 150–71.

[5] See n. 4.

[6] Arthur L. Little, Jr., “‘An Essence That’s Not Seen’: The Primal Scene of Racism in Othello,” Shakespeare Quarterly 44: 3 (Autumn 1993): 304.

[7] Catherine O’Neil, “Pushkin and Othello,” in Svobodny, Trigos, and Nepomnya­shchy, eds., Under the Sky of My Africa, 196–225.